Angel Dahouk review Rock in a Hard Place by Orlando Crowcroft
Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East, by Orlando Crowcroft (Zed Books, £12.99)
JOURNALIST Orlando Crowcroft spent six years meeting with musicians across the Middle East and his book documents the passion and prejudice faced by the metal and hip-hop communities in countries ranging from the largely liberal to the most conservative in the region.
Opening with Metallica’s stadium concert in Abu Dhabi in 2011, Crowcroft aims to convey the very basic message that music unites us all. “In some cases,” Crowcroft says about the musicians he has met, “I have known someone for years without knowing whether they are Christian, Muslim or Druze.”
As he moves through Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine and Syria, Crowcroft introduces the individuals involved across all aspects of music-making, from the bands themselves to the distributors and audiences.
The stories and interviews are assessed in light of the so-called Arab Spring, the rise of radicalism and the current war in Syria.
Crowcroft recounts the unimaginable risks faced by people in the Middle East to pursue or even engage with music, from imprisonment to deportation to death.
Some, like Sina Winter of the Iranian metal band From The Vastland, do not view their music as political. “I am fighting for freedom of my art,” he says, “it isn’t about politics, it is about art.”
Likewise, the frontman to Saudi doom metal band Grieving Age insists that his music has no connection to his faith. “Metal is music. What has religion got to do with it?”
But for the majority of artists, music is inextricably linked to their social and political circumstances, whether they are faced with government crackdown or outright war.
As a fan of heavy metal, Crowcroft is able to give a broad and fascinating overview of the genre, from Norwegian death metal to British grindcore, in addition to introducing the leading Middle Eastern metal musicians.
But Crowcroft doesn’t quite make the transition from journalist to author.
There are occasions where the narrative gives way to unnecessary commentary, detracting from the extraordinary resilience of these musicians. “At times of violence, revolution and war,” Crowcroft writes, “we’ve cranked up the stereo good and loud.”
Nonetheless, this is a compelling body of research into the underground cultural scenes of the Middle East.
We meet a pair of teenage brothers who write hundreds of letters to bands and zines across the world from their Israeli kibbutz, an Egyptian protester whose song is listed alongside John Lennon and Public Enemy in Time Out’s 100 Songs That Changed History and a Lebanese metal band that has achieved fame some 20 years after they were banned from broadcast.
Such stories are remarkable and deserve to be widely read.